What do you sit on when at your spinning wheel?

This is a question I often ask other spinners, as I can get quite uncomfortable if I don’t set myself up on the right chair for the wheel I am using. I must admit to being a bit of a voyeur at my local spinning group, because I like to watch how others set themselves up and see how they work their wheel, its fascinating to watch different techniques. I never stop learning!

I have several wheels that all have different height flyers and orifice, so have found that I need to change position depending on which I am using. The lowest is my vintage double drive lace wheel (single, tiny treadle, named Penny) which comes in at just above knee height, followed by a Louet Victoria (Vicky, single drive, double treadle) and then my single treadle, double drive Ashford Traditional (Hamish). I’m considering adding a double treadle kit to him, but he has been stained mahoghany by the former owner and I don’t think I could bring myself to do that to the new treadles.

The highest orifice is on my double treadle Ashford Traveller (Dora), which is the one I use most. The Traveller is easy to manoeuvre around the living room, has a small footprint, and I’ve added a jumbo flyer as well as a wide ratio standard, so its pretty versatile. I just wish it was a double drive as I prefer this set up, but you can’t have everything. One day I might come across a double drive Traveller and have the spare cash to make the upgrade.

I digress – apologies, but I do that a lot.

Back to chairs. After attempts at trying other set ups, I’ve found a dining room chair best for the Traveller – with a firm cushion at my back and one on my lap. The back cushion supports my lower back, encouraging me to stay upright, and also pushes my bum forward so that I don’t get compression from then front edge of the chair seat pushing into the back of my knees. The lap cushion helps to prevent neck and shoulder strain. An added perk is that I seem to spin a more consistent yarn when using the lap cushion.

Before I discovered that this type of chair worked for me I was sitting in a soft armchair, albeit an high and upright one. Trouble with this was I had to have lots of cushions to sit forward, and then, although my lower back was OK, my bum tended to slide forwards because the soft seat didn’t support the backs of my thighs enough to keep upright. Plus the seat is quite narrow and I got neck strain from avoiding the arms when I worked long-draw or was plying.

So I am now reasonably comfy on the dining room chair with the Traveller, but I think I’d be better with a slightly lower seat. Its just the palaver of carrying chair and wheel to a good position where: it doesn’t rock on the edge of the rug, there is a table near me to put mycup of tea on, the dog won’t walk through my fibre, and I can see the TV – not too much to ask I feel.

Working on the low lace wheel I use a nursing chair that is only 12″ (about 26cm) from the floor. This chair has a big seat and no arms, whilst the back is quite high so its a good shape for spinning. The back is a good height, but I’d like it a bit narrower to allow full movement in my shoulders.

The Traditional is in another room and I use a swivel office chair with adjustable everything. This is good, but is sadly an ugly (and patchily faded) royal blue and too heavy to carry from room to room. So its not an option for the living room where I like to spin in the evenings watching TV with my partner.

My Louet Victoria (Vicky) is a folding, portable, lightweight wheel for use outdoors or at workshops, so sometimes when using her there is no choice about where I can sit. If I can take a chair with me, I have a very lightweight aluminium folding directors chair that doesn’t have that awfully uncomfortable bar across the front under my knees. I like to take a cushion for the seat to make it super comfy and this helps me sit upright. It also keeps my bum warm if the day is cold. However this type of chair has arms – but they are pretty low and wide apart and I seem OK on this.

I’ve tried a backless stool and ended up with terrible back ache, so thats not an option for me. I am toying with the idea of a traditional ‘spinning chair’ with a low seat and narrow back, but the seats all seem really small, and I am worried my bum will overflow the sides!

So that is a summary of where my spinning chair experiments have led me.

Sometimes, depending on my overall muscular-skeletal day-to-day twinges I find working the treadle wearing a soft shoe rather than barefoot alleviates foot and knee pains. But I love spinning barefoot outdoors in warm weather.

Ancient fleece – an experiment

Whilst digging in our loft today to make space for the plumber to run new pipes, I found a fleece!

I couldn’t believe what I saw, because I was sure I remembered throwing it away years ago, and I mean years…probably the best part of twenty years! I can say that with quite a lot of certainty because it was given to my Mother when she wanted to learn to spin on her Westbury wheel. She had bought it in the 1970s I think, in Glastonbury, as a kit. My Father made it up for her and she stained it a dark walnut colour. But she didn’t have any fleece – or to be honest the faintest idea how to spin. A friend of a friend found her two Jacob fleeces from a local shepherd in Somerset, but I don’t believe she ever got any yarn off the wheel.

Not bad for a 20 year old fleece

I ‘inherited’ the wheel (and the fleece) when I bought a flat and had space to house it. Once again it sat unused, and the fleece sat lonely and unloved as well. When I had children, the wheel became the object of their attention. They delighted in treadling it and bits fell off.

After my Mother died I took the drastic decision to sell it to save it, if you see what I mean. I so regret that now, I wish I’d put it in the loft, which is somehow where this fleece ended up – I must have chucked the other one, or maybe gave it with the wheel.

Since then, I have acquired an Ashford Traveller and a Traditional, but I would love to have another Westbury for sentimental reasons. So if anyone is looking to sell a Westbury wheel do get in touch with me first.

So today the fleece saw the light of day after many years. I thought it would be absolutely ruined, if not full of moth, but no, it is fine. I don’t think it was very greasy to start with, and there isn’t much VM. I’m in the middle of a test wash of a part of it to see what happens. I can’t believe it has survived, but I’ve given parts a good tug and there isn’t any breakage, and very little discolouration. It is a beautiful chocolate brown and cream, so I plan to separate the colours and spin it as a tweed-effect, providing all goes well.

It will lovely if I can spin it; a sort of homage to my Mum who never quite got it together to spin it herself, much as she would have loved to. If I could spin it on a Westbury, my homage would be complete!

Spinning outdoors

Is it risque? It’s certainly liberating. Given the restrictions on meeting up indoors, going to the park seemed the the perfect way to meet up when we can’t go to our normal groups.

This is the second one I’ve organised and it was lovely way to spend a Friday afternoon. I took my portable Louet wheel and others brought wheels, drop spindles, knitting and crochet. And a picnic lunch!

Shade was mandatory as it was so hot, and we found a generous tree that have us a shady space big enough for plenty of social distancing.

I’m taking the photo…
So someone kindly took one of me

I took along a sack of stove-top rainbow dyed fleece as described on my Dyeing Wool page. It’s a little coarse, but in nicely formed locks, so I am flick carding it and spinning it quite thick for use in a rug, (maybe)?

Spinning outdoors

Last week a few of us got together (safely distanced and masked), to take our textiles into the park. I enjoyed myself so much I forgot to take a photo!

The thought of spinning outside in the sunshine encouraged me to use bright colours. So I took along some Shetland fleece I dyed a while ago using acid dyes, (I have written more about dyeing fleece with acid dye here).

I’d spun up a bobbin of Suffolk fleece that is not very exciting, so I planned to use that as the core for a bright, irregular spun, core-spun yarn to which I would add a charcoal wrapping yarn. All 100%wool. I took my folding Louet Victoria S95 wheel which is a joy to use.

The core yarn was Z twisted quite tight. The wrapping colours were also put on Z twist, and the final charcoal, commercial yarn was S spun over the others.

Photo taken at might, so the colours are not accurate.

After washing and drying the twist the colours hardly muted and it’s come out as lovely yarn.

Taken outdoors, but the colours are a bit light.

Having a bash at core spinning

Last night I blended some rather lumpy Southdown fleece I was trying to use up with some dyed Shetland. It was just for fun – no plan involved, just testing out my DIY blending board. When I sat at my wheel – watching ‘Hidden’, I couldn’t think what to do with it. Then I remembered seeing Lexi Boeger’s method of coreless- core-spinning in her book ‘Hand Spun’. I thought the strong colours would work well against the natural if spun in this way, so I had a go.

According to Lexi the principle is to only work with a small amount of fibre at a time, and to spread the fibres wide into a trianglular web. You spin the core with the fibres at one edge of the triangle, whilst simultaneously holding the other part of the web at right angles to this so that it can wrap around the core between your drafting hand and the orifice. Its bit like patting your head and rubbing you tummy at the same time – but once I got going I enjoyed it. There were a few messy bits, which I attribute to the lumpy Southdown myself!

I love the way the colours wrap around the natural core

I’m not sure its truly core spinning, but its on the way there and I do like the effect. The yarn was very over-twisted, but after a good soak in hot water and hanging with a light weight to dry naturally it is fine now.

Test run of my new Louet Victoria

Today I’m taking my new Louet S95 Victoria folding spinning wheel out on a test run. We are taking the bus – with a change in town – to my spinning group.

I’m using its own rucksack to carry her, and so far it’s OK. I’ll probably add chest and waist straps in the future to make it more comfy. I’ve popped my my lunch, a spare bobbin and some fibre in the front pocket. As I don’t know if the rucksack is waterproof I’m hoping it doesn’t rain.

I’ve got a little trolley I planned to use for taking my Ashford Traveller to group, but still haven’t got round to buying some stretchy ropes to secure the wheel to the trolley. Which is partly why I’m using the rucksack as a rucksack today.

I’m on the way home now, and that went well. I took the time with the group to play with the ratios of the Victoria , which are 1:6, 1:8.5, 1:13. I found that I could match the same fibre spun into yarn spun on the largest whorl of my Traveller, (which I think is 1:6.5), best on the 1:8.5 whorl, but that might be the way I was handling the fibre today. I spun the sample I was working from a few weeks ago, and do find temperature and humidity effect the fibre and my hands.

I will have to name my Louet, my Traveller is Dora, my Traditional is Hector. My little old Scottish double drive wheel is SweetPea because she is tiny, delicate and beautiful and treadles so sweetly.

Wild Chalk: a celebration of the natural world of the South Downs

The South Downs are home to the Southdown breed of of sheep, the wool from which can be used for hand spinning. So to support the local Shout Downs national park and sheep farmers I joined several other members of my local spinning group, Woolly Umbrella, and took my skills (basic as they are) along to Wild Chalk. This free event, organised by the South Down National Park Rangers, was held in East Brighton park. Our part was to demonstrate spinning wool and encouraged people to have a go. I took along several drop spindles and a sack of washed fleece. Others brought along a spinning wheel, drop spindles and needle felting to share, plus an exhibition with some beautiful examples of naturally dyed, handspun wool. Most people were spinning the local Southdown fibre but mine, to my shame, was Texel cross Southdown.

As you can see children and adults alike really loved to watch, and most of them tried spinning from fleece to some extent or other.

I practised with a newly acquired Turkish spindle and using the Andean Plying technique even produced some reasonable 2ply.

Spinning wheel drive ratio – getting down to the nitty gritty, and learning to control my tendency to over-spin yarn

Spinning wheel drive ratio is the number of times the bobbin revolves whilst the drive wheel makes one revolution. It is governed by the size of the whorl that drives the bobbin. There is of course the effect of any brake to be considered as well, but this has to be adjusted to get the yarn to wind onto the bobbin and is not the same as the drive ratio.

Most modern wheels offer different ratios by providing several different sized whorls on the bobbin or flyer. Probably because my upright double drive is an old wheel, and I mean old, wobbly and fragile – one that would be termed ‘vintage’ on eBay, it only has one ratio (it only has one whorl on the bobbin). I tend to over-spin when using this wheel, so I wanted to teach myself to make softer yarn and thought understanding drive ratio might help me. Being a bit techie and liking to understand how things work, I decided as a first step to check out what the drive ratio is on my upright double drive wheel.

Using advice from ‘Spinning Wool – beyond the basics’ by Anne Field, I started the process. Firstly I removed any yarn from the orifice and bobbin and slackened the tension screw to the lowest setting. Next I tied a tag of yarn on one arm of the flyer as a marker, and aligned this arm with the rear maiden. Now, using my hand I turned the wheel one complete revolution, counting how many times the tag of yarn passed the rear maiden. This figure is the drive ratio of the wheel as it is set up (remember that a different sized whorl will give a different ratio). In this example, the bobbin revolved 6 times during one revolution of the drive wheel, which means that my old double drive upright wheel has a 6:1 ratio.

Next in my experiment to spin softer yarn I trawled further advice from Anne Field. She suggests that the fibre itself can give you information as to how to spin it, and that frequency of crimps along the staple length of fibre can give you a clue about how the twist frequency. In her opinion a fibre with 7 crimps in 2.5cm, for example, is best spun with 7 twists per 2.5cm of singles. OK, I thought, so I pulled a staple from the Shetland fleece I am working with, and counted the crimps per 2.5cm. I used a magnifying glass to help me, and came out with a figure of 5 crimps in 2.5cm, which meant that I needed to aim for 5 twists in every 2.5cm of singles as I spun the fibre.

Once again I referred to Field’s book, and from the suggested methods for establishing a visual reference for the distance in which the twists should lie, I chose to mark 2.5cm on a piece of paper. I then taped this my lap whilst spinning. Other methods included marking these lines in your spinning apron, or using points on your fingers, e.g. tip of thumb to knuckle. This last one is the one I plan to move to once I am a bit more confident.

To re-cap, my aim, based on the Shetland fibre’s crimp, was to have 5 twists in 2.5cm of yarn. This meant 2.5cm of twisted yarn had to be drawn onto the wheel during one revolution of the drive wheel (5 revolutions of the bobbin), thus 5 twists would be inserted into that set length of yarn.

Anne Field estimates that approximately 1 twist will be lost in each 2.5cm of singles once the yarn is plied (although I am a bit hazy about how that happens), and so it seemed to me that I could spin the yarn with 6 twists per 2.5cm and finish with the 5 twists I wanted. This fitted in really neatly with the wheel’s drive ratio of 6:1, (1 treadle, and therefore 1 revolution of the wheel, turns the bobbin 6 times). This made me wonder whether this wheel was designed and made for spinning this type of wool from the older British breeds.

So by treading SLOWLY, drafting 2.5cm of fibre and releasing 2.5cm of yarn into the bobbin for each revolution of the drive wheel (one pedal motion), I actually managed to make a start.

To check how I was doing I stopped after a few metres of singles, pulled some back off the bobbin and let the yarn twist back on itself to emulate the final plied yarn. After evaluating the twist, and adjusting my spinning accordingly, I eventually managed to achieve approximately 5 twists per 2.5cm! Yes….I was getting it – slowly.

The resulting yarn is so much softer and fuller than my normal attempts – and a small hank is now drying in the bathroom for me to evaluate tomorrow.

My next step is to lengthen the draft and feed 5cm of yarn onto the bobbin in 2 treadles (revolution s of the drive wheel). In theory I can increase the length of draft and feed depending on the length of fibre I am working with, providing it has 5 crimps per 2.5cm.

I’m not sure what happens if there is more or less crimp, and therefore more or less twist required in 2.5cm. That is my next learning curve.

I may I have made some mistakes and probably over generalised, so welcome comments and advice.